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  • Nostalgic for UtopiaAnne Romaine’s Folk Music Protest in the New Left South
  • Joseph M. Thompson (bio)

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Romaine did not root her nostalgia in the past to evoke a simpler time of hazy, bygone days. Instead, she wanted to remind southerners of the most radical moments of their history in order to pave a way forward. Front row: Bessie Jones, Jean Ritchie, Anne Romaine, Doc Watson, Rosalie Watson; back row: three unidentified people, and Mike Seeger at far right, ca. 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Mike Seeger Collection, PF-20009/110, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Speaking in March of 1995, shortly before her death, Anne Romaine reflected on the folk music concerts to which she had devoted the past thirty years of her life. At fifty-three years old and with relatively little commercial success to show for her lifetime of effort, the white civil rights activist and musician still held faith in the power of music “to create unity, and to sharpen the spirit of courage.” In 1964, Romaine had joined the Southern Students Organizing Committee (ssoc), a white student group affiliated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (sncc) and Students for a Democratic Society (sds). As an organizer, performer, and tour promoter in the ssoc, she drew on the folk music traditions of her native South. These tours, which began in 1966 and continued through the early 1970s, daringly presented an interracial cast of musicians who shared the stage at the same time on black and white college campuses throughout the South as the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project, an organization Romaine maintained until 1993.1

On the surface, Romaine’s tours seem to offer a typical example of how the mid-century folk revival intersected with political activism. Thousands of young performers and fans began embracing folk music in the late 1950s, gradually learning of its ties to the Old Left class politics of the 1930s and even older connections to nineteenth-century academic folklore. Historians have given careful critical attention to the way folk revivalists trafficked in romanticized ideas about the often marginalized communities that created America’s vernacular music. Revivalists could seem naively nostalgic for an allegedly simpler time of organic artistic creation independent of the assumedly compromised ethics of U.S. politics and the superficiality of the pop music business. In contrast to the pop, soul, and rock and roll performers of the day, folk artists believed that their music’s ties to grassroots song traditions added moral authority to their battles for civil rights and various New Left causes.2

Yet Romaine’s use of the South’s musical past defies characterization as generic folk revival romanticism. Romaine sought to create interracial understanding through a hybrid nostalgia that served competing visions of the future: she joined racial liberalism’s proponents in hoping for integration; at the same time, she was sympathetic with an emergent vision of Black Power radicalism. Her position as a white woman activist at the intersection of these two movements reveals the particular challenges of basing progressive racial politics on a history as fraught as the U.S. South’s. Nostalgia indicates a sense of longing for an irretrievable past and a feeling that whatever change has occurred over time does not necessarily signal progress—but Romaine did not root her nostalgia in the past to evoke a simpler time of hazy, bygone days. Instead, she wanted to remind southerners of the most radical moments of their history in order to pave a way forward. [End Page 46]

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Upon returning from New York, Romaine searched for a collaborator and contacted Bernice Johnson Reagon. Reagon had experienced the power of music to galvanize the movement in moments of crisis beginning with her participation in the protests in her hometown of Albany, Georgia. Bob Zellner, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Cordell Reagon, Dottie Miller (Zellner), and Avon Rollins at a mass meeting outside a small church. The gathering would disperse after learning that local police were massing nearby. Danville, Virginia, June 1963. Photo by Danny Lyon...